An anti-abortion protest in Belfast. Photo: Getty
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Have we reached the tipping point for abortion rights in Northern Ireland?

A new legal challenge to Northern Ireland’s restrictive abortion laws marks a huge success for the pro-choice movement.

Since Northern Ireland as a state first came into being almost a hundred years ago, stability and constancy have not been its strong suits.

As Northern Ireland self immolated into the violence and political unrest of The Troubles, it brought generations of political chaos for locals, but one element of politics has always remained a constant. Both sides of the conflict have always been able to agree on one common enemy – the woman who wants to choose.

Abortion is still illegal in Northern Ireland unless a termination is required to save a woman’s life or to avoid permanent and serious damage to her health. If the foetus is severely disabled, the woman was raped or conception was a result of incest – terminations are illegal. Access to abortion for Northern Irish women is forbidden under the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act and the 1945 Criminal Justice Act.

Thus, in 2015, we mark 70 years since Northern Ireland’s abortion laws were last altered. Since then, the laws have remained fundamentally touched, gathering dust on pages which are themselves naturally disintegrating through the material processes of time. Yet the laws themselves linger on, revered and perfectly preserved, like the relics of a saint.

Today, the High Court in Belfast will hear a legal challenge to the law.

A case brought by the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission will be heard as the group argue that terminations should made possible for women who conceive as a result of rape or incest, or where there is “serious malformation of the foetus”. Regardless of whether the legal challenge is successful, merely having the case considered by the court is a huge success for many in the local pro-choice movement. It will be the first major challenge to the status quo in living memory, a once unimaginable point.

The hearing comes quickly on the heels of a number of momentous milestones in the struggle for women’s right to choose in Northern Ireland. The debate has surged forward in the last two years to a point where the law could now feasibly be altered in small, but meaningful ways.

In 2012, the unthinkable and unexpected happened when Marie Stopes opened a private clinic in Belfast city centre. They said they would provide medical, not surgical, abortions up to nine weeks gestation- which they argued was legal within the framework of UK law. Outrage swelled locally and the Northern Irish attorney general, who is chief legal advisor to the devolved power sharing assembly and a devout Catholic, called for an investigation into its legality. However, the clinic has refused to reveal if it has yet performed any terminations in the building and insisted that its actions were legal. After much fury from pro-life protestors, the clinic was officially registered with health authorities the following year and has been allowed to operate.

In December of last year, Justice Minister David Ford announced that he was launching a public consultation to alter the law in case of what he assured the public would be only “two very narrow sets of circumstances”. Namely, when a foetus has a fatal abnormality and is neither viable inside the womb or immediately after birth, or if conception had been a result of a sexual crime such as rape or incest.

A report by Amnesty International in October of last year revealed that 69 per cent of people living in Northern Ireland believe that accessing abortion locally should be an option in the case of a woman being raped. Interestingly, Protestants were more likely to be in favour than Catholics, 73 per cent compared to 62 per cent. 68 per cent of those surveyed felt it should be available in the case of incest, while 60 per cent agreed it should be an option when there was a fatal foetal abnormality.

At least behind closed doors and when responding to surveys in private, the religious rhetoric that once gripped Northern Ireland seems to have lost its grasp.

Yet despite the majority of locals wanting the law to be changed, politicians at Stormont continue to push forward the anti-choice agenda.

The Northern Irish live in a society whose cornerstones are rigid religion and all-knowing patriarchs who decide what is best for the rest of our community. For many of our politicians, their theological beliefs imbue them with the sense of a divine right to impose their religion on others, whilst the legacy of sectarian, bipartisan politics enacts itself here in the refusal to budge an inch from unflinching, absolutist stances. This culture has lead to politicians continuing to push a line which doesn’t reflect what its citizens want when it comes to modernising the abortion laws.

Only one in five members of the Northern Ireland Assembly are female, meaning that the state has the lowest numbers of female representation of any devolved institutions in Western Europe. This means that the voices of women in Northern Ireland often go unheard. Indeed, in response to Minister Ford’s consultation on changing the abortions laws, BBC Northern Ireland held a debate which saw a male interviewer discuss the issue with three men and one woman. It’s difficult to imagine the English BBC getting away with doing the same, but here no-one batted an eyelid at the idea of men dominating discussions on women’s rights.

The Republican party Sinn Fein is the only major political party to support changing the abortion law. The left of centre nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party is theologically catholic and firmly “pro life”, while the hardline right wing Democratic Unionist Party holds the same view based on its Protestant values. Of the remaining major parties, the Ulster Unionist Party and the centre ground Alliance Party say that it is a matter of personal conscience for each of their politicians to decide.

Yet, while the men on Stormont Hill pout and pontificate on the matter, more than a thousand Northern Irish women fly above their heads each year on budget airline carriers destined for England, in order to access basic healthcare.

Northern Ireland lags severely behind the rest of the UK when it comes to social attitudes. The fight for reproductive rights will be a long battle. We’ve long passed the tipping point socially, and next week’s High Court hearing and the Justice Minister’s consultation could see this finally reflected legally.

Allowing women to have a termination after rape, incest or a fatal abnormality of the foetus, would not bring local women the rights of their sisters in the rest of the UK. But it would be a meaningful start. To alter Northern Ireland’s abortion laws for the first time in seventy years would be a hard won battle in a severely stagnant society.

David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide